DEFRA’S new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) has been labelled 'unambitious and underfunded' by both farming and environmental bodies.

Defra secretary George Eustice this week revealed details of the first of three new environmental land management schemes being developed for England and Wales, with the aim that they will be rolled out next year.

Under the SFI, there will be three environmental standards which farmers will be paid for, including grassland soils, arable soils and a moorland grazing standard – which will be open to farmers who are eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme and farm more than five hectares of land.

Read more: Soils and animal welfare to the fore of Defra's Agricultural Transition Plan

Setting out his priorities for the scheme, Mr Eustice said: “While it is not for me to tell an individual farmer what to do, I accept that we need to be clear about the policy outcomes we seek. These are to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030; to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions; to plant up to 10,000 hectares of trees per year in England, to improve water quality; to create more space for nature in the farmed landscape; and to ensure that we have a vibrant and profitable food and farming industry which supports the Government’s levelling-up agenda and helps safeguard our food security.”

The Arable and Horticultural Soils standard offers between £22 and £40 per hectare and requires activities such as testing of soil organic matter. The Improved Grassland Soils standard offers between £28 to £58 per hectare for activity including producing a soil management plan or herbal leys on at least 15% of land. The Moorland and Rough Grazing standard offers £148 fixed per agreement per year, plus an additional variable payment rate of £6.45 per hectare.

Mr Eustice also confirmed that farmers would be able to access funding for an annual health and welfare visit from a vet and disease testing to help livestock farmers raise standards even further.

But conservation charities the RSPB and The Wildlife Trust argued that the SFI would not incentivise farmers to manage their land in more climate-friendly way.

"After leaving the EU, we were promised that the billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money given to farmers would be used to improve our natural world. But this publication shows a shocking lack of ambition which does very little to address the climate and nature crises," said TWT chief executive Craig Bennett.

“There’s so much that farmers could be rewarded for doing, such as restoring peatlands and employing ambitious measures to prevent soil and pollutants from washing into rivers – to help wildlife and store carbon,” he continued. “It’s an absolute scandal that the government has failed to seize this unique and important opportunity to improve farming so it can help restore nature and address the climate crisis.”

At the same time, agricultural leaders criticised the payments as too low, and asked Defra for further details of how the schemes would operate.

“While it is good to finally have some more clarity on the scheme offering, ultimately much more detail is needed for farm businesses to make informed decisions,” said English NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw.

“It’s clear that Defra has taken on farmers’ feedback on the pilot scheme and we can see that meaningful changes have been made to the final offer, including much-needed flexibility for tenant farmers to participate and the introduction of a more flexible approach to inspections.

“However, it is vital that the SFI recognises the significant costs farmers could incur in delivering public goods and fully recognises that in the payment rates, at a time when direct payments are phased out. We have concerns in this area and it is vital that these are addressed in order to attract the participation Defra envisages and that is required to deliver the environmental ambition of the scheme.”

The National Sheep Association shared those concerns over the level of support being offered by the new scheme during the transition away from direct subsidies.

“We have to realise that while the SFI offer is relatively small, the aim is for future scheme development to keep pace with the percentage reductions in BPS – this isn’t to say ELMS is a replacement for BPS but it should be offering the opportunity for farmers to replace much of that income if they choose to,” said NSA chief executive Phil Stocker, who adding that it was worth considering the positive progress. “We have a seven-year transition period and no cliff edge, which is exactly what most farmers wanted, we have the first ‘tier of ELMS’ as a sustainable farming incentive – a scheme for farming practices, and we have a scheme that gives the flexibility to enter at a field level, giving flexibility for the farmer to do what is right for them. The downside of this could be complexity but again Defra is aware of this and have simplification in mind.”